Ecopsychology: Where does it fit in psychology?

by John Scull

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual psychology conference, Malaspina University College, March 26, 1999.

© copyright 1999, John Scull. Permission is given to reproduce this article, provided the author is both acknowledged and informed.  

Human economic activity is rapidly changing the atmosphere, soil, and water of the earth in ways that are harmful to other species and may be disastrous for us or our descendants (Winter, 1996). Ecopsychology accepts the reality of this ecological crisis and suggests that there is also a spiritual or psychological crisis resulting from our separation from the more-than-human world. Ecopsychology looks for the roots of these problems in human psychology and society. It is an explicitly moral psychology with the goal of discovering how people can connect with the natural world in ways that are healthy and sustainable both for people and for the planet.

What ecopsychology is not

To avoid confusion, it may be important to distinguish between ecopsychology and a number of fields with very similar names.

Ecological psychology. This term usually refers to the perceptual and evolutionary theories of the Gibsons, Reed, and others (Reed, 1996). Sewall (1995) has suggested how perceptual theory might be related to ecopsychology. It is confusing, though, that the phrase “ecological psychology” has been used as the title of a book about ecopsychology (Winter, 1996) and another book about energy conservation and recycling (Howard, 1997).

Environmental psychology. This term refers to the academic study of human-environment relationships. This field has traditionally focused on human-made environments and could probably be characterized as architectural psychology. In recent years, the questions asked by ecopsychologists have become a little more central to environmental psychology (Reser, 1995). Ecopsychology could be seen as a sub-field of environmental psychology, although this would probably be resisted by many people in both fields.

Environmental education. This term refers to teaching/learning about our relationship to the natural world and to outdoor education. Ecopsychology is closely related to this field and environmental education could be informed by work in ecopsychology.

Deep ecology. This refers to both a philosophical position (ecosophy) and a social movement. Ecopsychology shares many features with deep ecology and most ecopsychologists probably feel close to deep ecologists. There are, however, some important differences that will be discussed later. Some deep ecologists, such as John Seed and Joanna Macy (Macy & Brown, 1998), seem to be doing ecopsychology and calling it deep ecology.

The history of ecopsychology

Ecopsychology has many roots: Buddhist philosophy, various mystical traditions within most religions, the romantic movement in Europe, and the transcendentalist movement in theUnited States(Reser, 1995). James, Freud, Jung, Skinner, and many other psychologists along with Muir, Leopold, and other ecologists have considered various aspects of the human-nature relationship. Behaviourists (Dwyer, Leeming, Cobern, Porter, & Jackson, 1993) and social psychologists (Stern, 1992) have made attempts to modify how people behave with respect to the environment. A few teachers and therapists have used wilderness experience as a psychological tool. For example, wilderness settings were used in psychotherapy for more than 30 years under the name of “psychoecology” by Robert Greenway and Art Warmoth (Greenway, 1999) or “Project Nature Connect” by Michael J. Cohen (Cohen, 1997).

Robert Greenway (1999) wrote about the beginnings of ecopsychology: “In 1989…a former student…by the name of Elan Shapiro, got together with some friends of his, Mary Gomes and Alan Kanner and a psychotherapist or two, and invited me to come to Berkeley once every two weeks for a discussion of “psychoecology” …in 1990…Ted Roszak got wind of the group and asked to attend.” The term ecopsychology and a vision of the field of ecopsychology were first publicly defined by social historian Theodore Roszak in his book Voice of the Earth (Roszak, 1992), although many of the central ideas of ecopsychology can be found in his earlier work (Roszak, 1979) and in the work of Paul Shepard (1982).

Ecopsychology can be seen as part of a group of contemporary, post-modernist movements including nature writing (e.g., Dillard, 1975; Lopez, 1979), fantasy (e.g., Quinn, 1992), ecology (Leopold, 1949), deep ecology (e.g., Naess, 1983; Devall & Sessions, 1985), transpersonal psychology (e.g., Hillman & Ventura, 1992; Fox, 1990), economics (e.g., Daly & Cobb, 1989), Gaia theory (Lovelock, 1979), popular education (Freire, 1990), and systems theory (e.g., Bateson, 1972; Capra, 1997).

What is ecopsychology?

Roszak’s version of ecopsychology could probably better be described as “ecopsychiatry” than ecopsychology, because he adopted the medical metaphor of Freud and Jung in his conceptualization of the field. In the epilogue of his book (Roszak, 1992) he gave eight principles of ecopsychology which may be summarized as follows:

1. “The core of the mind is the ecological unconscious.”

2. “The contents of the ecological unconscious represent….the living record of evolution.”

3. “The goal of ecopsychology is to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious.”

4. “The crucial stage of development is the life of the child.”

5. “The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility with the planet.”

6. Ecopsychology needs to re-evaluate certain “masculine” character traits that lead us to dominate nature.”

7. “Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourish the ecological ego.”

8. “There is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being.”

More recently, the web page of the Ecopsychology Institute, California State University, Hayward (Ecopsychology Online, 1999), founded by Roszak, defines ecopsychology as:

1. The emerging synthesis of ecology and psychology

2. The skillful application of ecological insight to the practice of psychotherapy

3. The study of our emotional bond with the Earth

4. The search for an environmentally-based standard of mental health

5. Re-defining “sanity” as if the whole world mattered.”

The heavy dependence on psychoanalytic concepts is gone, but this description of ecopsychology still leans heavily on the medical mental health metaphor with its emphasis on psychotherapy and its use of the “mental health” and “sanity” metaphors..

A Jungian perspective was provided by Aizenstat (1995) and by Donald Williams (1997), who wrote that “Ecopsychology…attempts to understand the psychodynamics of our relationship to the environment.” In this definition the medical metaphor is gone, but the belief in the unconscious and the psychodynamic model remain.

Other writers have tried to avoid the many assumptions and restrictions created by the medical metaphor and the dependence on psychoanalysis. Instead, they have defined ecopsychology as a field of inquiry rather than as a set of beliefs.

Mary Gomes (1998) wrote that “ecopsychology…seeks to understand and heal our relationship with the Earth. It examines the psychological processes that bond us to the natural world or that alienate us from it.” Deep ecologist John Seed saw no merit in tying ecopsychology to psychotherapy and took the opposite tack, defining ecopsychology as “psychology in the service of the Earth” (Seed, 1994). Keepin (1995) wrote that “ecopsychology refers to a variety of endeavours — theoretical, applied, and clinical — that bring together the methods and understandings of ecology and psychology to address the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual roots of the ecological crisis. On the same theme, Brendan Hill (1999) wrote that “ecopsychology is a term recently coined to describe the interface between ecology and psychology. It encompasses the human (and arguably, the non human) psychological relationship with nature, in both directions.”

While the field has been slowly developing as an intellectual endeavour, some psychologists have been directly addressing the practicalities of the human-nature relationship. In the 20 years before the appearance of Roszak’s book (Roszak, 1992), behavioural researchers published more than 100 experimental papers on how to change people’s environmental behaviour (Dwyer, et. al., 1993). At the same time, sociologists and social psychologists were exploring the human-nature relationship using the tools of social and behavioural science (Stern, 1992). Rather than develop a theoretical ecopsychology, these researchers applied existing theories to problems of environmentally significant behaviour. More recently, Winter (1997) has systematically explored ways in which psychology might be relevant to ecology.

An overview of ecopsychology

Following Keepin’s or Hill’s open definitions that look at both aspects of the human-nature relationship, and that look at cultural and social dimensions as well as psychological and ecological ones, ecopsychology can be seen as spanning a range of questions from ecology through religion, anthropology, sociology, and political economy, to the psychology of individuals. The concerns of ecopsychology are the role of our actions in the global ecological crisis and the effects of our ecology (including the crisis) on our psychology. Out of this may come answers to the practical questions of how to change our actions in relation to more-than-human nature and how to change our experience of nature.

What do ecopsychologists do?

One focus of ecopsychology has been on experiential learning aimed at helping people form a spiritual and emotional connection to the ecological systems of which they are a part. This has included wilderness experiences (Greenway, 1995; Harper, 1995), internet courses and workshops with experiential exercises on how to reconnect with nature (Cohen, 1997), deep ecology workshops for groups (Macy & Brown, 1998) participation in environmental activist groups (O’Conner, 1995), and habitat restoration work (Shapiro, 1995). There may be agreement among ecopsychologists that direct, non-mediated, non-verbal experiences with nature are both therapeutic for the individual having the experience and essential if the person is to become committed to living in harmony with the earth. There is a perceived need for a language which is non-dualistic (Greenway, 1995) or nature-connected (Cohen, 1997).

A second focus for ecopsychology, which it shares with deep ecology, has been an emphasis on small group, community, and face-to-face contact as a way to change ecologically significant behaviour and establish healthier relationships. Because of this emphasis on individual or local community change, behavioural psychology (Dwyer, et. al., 1993) and popular education (Freire, 1990) seem to be consistent with other ecopsychological approaches even when they do not share a concern for the experience of nature. Some social psychological approaches to environmentalism have also been effective (Stern, 1992), but they may be more problematic due to their prior use by the advertising industry.

A third feature of ecopsychology seems to be a near consensus that healing the relationship between person and planet must take place on several levels. While the individual’s spiritual development is seen as a central aspect of making a connection, family, community, economic, political, and cultural factors are seen as being significant. In its emphasis on ecology and relationship, ecopsychology seems to reject dynamic psychology’s traditional emphasis on the individual self and scientific psychology’s mode of explanation in terms of simple cause-effect relationships.

A fourth feature shared by most ecopsychologists is the belief that the idea of the Self in contemporary psychology and culture is inadequate. There seems to be a consensus among ecopsychologists that we need a concept of the Self which is relational and inclusive. Various similar concepts have been put forward by different writers, for example the ecological self (Roszak, 1992), a psyche the size of the earth (Hillman, 1995), the more-than-human self (Conn, 1995), or the primal matrix (Glendinning, 1994).

Future directions

Having broadly and openly defined the field, it is difficult to know what to make of it. When we look at what ecopsychologists have actually said and written, we can see that the field has psychotherapeutic, behavioural, cultural, spiritual, and social dimensions (Reser, 1995). Following Shepard’s (1982) lead, psycho-prehistory and sociobiology have been influential in the thinking of many ecopsychologists. Is it possible to reconcile these views and create a coherent field, or is ecopsychology destined to divide into mutually exclusive camps the way many other areas of psychology and social science have done? Will ecopsychology continue to have a broad, diverse focus or will it become a narrow academic discipline?

Will mainstream psychology notice the environment? Will behavioural work go beyond recycling and carpooling to some of the core behaviours in the consumer society? Will social marketing address the cultural bases of the ecological crisis? How does ecopsychology relate to the environmental movement, deep ecology, psychotherapy? Is ecopsychology subversive? Is ecopsychology useful? These and other issues seem to be worth exploring.


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3 Responses to Ecopsychology: Where does it fit in psychology?

  1. John Scull says:

    There is an updated and expanded (and I feel, improved) version of this article has been published at
    John Scull

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